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October 28, 2014 7:17 am

Diversity and Jewish History

avatar by Lawrence J. Siskind

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Office of The New York Times, in New York City. Photo: WikiCommons.

Office of The New York Times. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Silicon Valley has a “diversity problem.” According to a New York Times editorial, most Silicon Valley employees are white and Asian men. “Among technical employees,” the Times noted, “few are women, and even fewer are Latino or African-American.” The editorial noted that there is “a lot the government needs to do,” and it urged the technology industry to “start tackling its diversity problem right now,” implying that if the industry doesn’t fix the problem, the government will.

We may not read about it in the Times, but there are even more egregious “diversity problems” throughout the economy.

Consider the Cambodians. They comprise 0.09% of the population, less than one tenth of one percent. Yet here in California, 90% of the doughnut shops are owned by Cambodians.”Ž

The Cambodian-doughnut “problem” is not unique. The Vietnamese make up about 0.5% of the population, one half of one percent. Yet 43% of nail technicians in the United States and about 80% in California are Vietnamese.”Ž

African-Americans are over-represented in the Federal workforce. Though only 10% of the civilian labor force, they make up 38% of Housing and Urban Development, 42% of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and 55% of the Government Printing Office employees.”Ž

The New York City cab business suffers from another “diversity” problem. According to the Times, 84% of the City’s taxi drivers are immigrants. Drivers from the West Indies (Dominican Republic or Haiti) alone make up about 23% of the total of the City’s drivers.”Ž

Why aren’t we outraged by these other diversity “problems”?

Perhaps because we realize that human beings are not fungible. Today, as throughout history, different nationalities and ethnic groups gravitate toward different job areas.

In some cases, the reasons are easily understood. California’s Napa Valley, with a climate similar to that of Tuscany, attracted Italian immigrants who brought their centuries-old tradition of winemaking, allowing them to dominate the field. German dominance in the American beer industry was a natural outgrowth of their long history of brewing in the Old Country.

Some “diversity problems” are not so easily explained. By the end of the 19th century, about 70% of New York City’s policemen were Irish-born. They had no strong tradition of joining the constabulary. Instead, they gravitated to police work because it was one of the few types of work open to them. Police work was seen as menial and even thuggish. Irishmen became policemen for the same reason that Jews became moneylenders: it was a despised field and therefore open to a despised minority.”Ž

These illustrations barely touch the surface of the complexity of the “diversity problem.” When one drills down, one finds dramatic differences within different nationalities and ethnic groups themselves.

The Jewish people are generally classified as either Sephardic or Ashkenazic. But Thomas Sowell, the Stanford social theorist, has noted that even among the Ashkenazic, one can detect significant differences. In Australia, “Jews from Eastern Europe have tended to cluster in and around Melbourne, while Germanic Jews have settled in and around Sydney. They even have a saying among themselves that Melbourne is a cold city with warm Jews while Sydney is a warm city with cold Jews.””Ž

One may bear these strong ancestral attitudes without even being aware of them. I was the first in my family to become a lawyer, and I smugly considered myself something of a pioneer. But years later, I discovered that my grandfather grew up in Grodno, where half of the city’s lawyers were Jewish. In choosing a legal career, I was staying close to my roots.”Ž

Adding to the mystery of diversity is the fact that ethnic dominance is often transitory. In the early decades of the 20th century, Jews dominated professional boxing. Between 1910 and 1940, there were 26 Jewish boxing champions. Between 1920 and 1930, fully one third of all professional boxers were Jewish, a higher percentage than that of Italians and Irish, the next two highest ethnic contenders. Yet as quickly as they established their dominance, Jews disappeared from the ring. By 1950, there were hardly any prominent Jewish boxers.”Ž

The Jewish experience in boxing shows that nothing is static. The Cambodian children of doughnut shop owners, and the Vietnamese children of manicure establishment owners, will likely follow different career paths than their parents, and the dominance of these ethnic groups will fade into history.

And so, I am not excited by the New York Times’ concern over the “diversity problem” in high tech. Human beings are complicated amalgams of individual and group character traits. To think that social pressure or government fiat can herd them into occupational fields in pari passu is to misconceive human nature and experience. One may just as well attempt to channel the ocean tides with sheets of cellophane. Human beings are and should be equal before the law. But they carry in their heads and hearts very different experiences and mindsets, and that makes them fascinatingly, mysteriously, and happily unequal.

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  • Joy D. Brower

    Well, of course, it’s ridiculous to think that a bureaucratic pencil-pusher could do anything but cause trouble for the highly successful high-tech industry.

    On the other hand, I’ve recently read about a couple of very savvy Black American women “techies” (and successful in their respective careers) who seek funding from foundations that put a high value on technical careers and educational training in the STEM field. They take minority girls as young as middle school and into high school, and these initiatives have resulted in summer camps and vacation workshops where the young women are really encouraged to spread their wings and absorb as much as possible in a flexible and challenging educational environment.


    Mr. Siskind is correct and makes an important contribution to the discussion by pointing out that cultural differences go a long way to explain disparities in employment. But on one matter he is dead wrong. He says it is difficult to explain the disproportionate number of Irish among police officers. But then he offers this, “{The Irish] gravitated to police work because it was one of the few types of work open to them. Police work was seen as menial and even thuggish. Irishmen became policemen for the same reason that Jews became moneylenders: it was a despised field and therefore open to a despised minority.”Ž”
    Siskind has forgotten something essential to this question. The Irish brought with them to America considerable political skills which they had developed over a long time fighting English domination. In a remarkable short time, the Irish political machines dominated governments in large cities like New York and Boston. This was before the civil service. The slogan “jobs for the boys” left unsaid that the jobs, not only in the police, but in the other uniformed services and in the civilian bureaucracy, would be going to the Irish boys.
    For a good account, see Patrick Moynihan’s contribution on the Irish to Glazer and Moynihan’s “Beyond the Melting Pot”. It’s fifty years old and it still valid.

  • Ben Gruder

    The author’s comparisons are not apt. Silicon Valley has a barrier to entry that consists of a very clubby coder/tech class that hires its own. That is NOT to say there is bigotry going on, but as a ‘destination’ occupation, it can be self-perpetuating because all hiring is risk-averse. Silicon valley is not a stepping stone industry like boxing and donut shops.

  • Nanushka

    I wonder how many children of blue collar White ethnic steelworkers, or grandchildren White, Protestant, Appalachian coal miners write for the New York Times?

    If they were to practice affirmative discrimination, and restrict the percentage of Jewish editors down to let’s say, 25%, Israel would be in much better shape.

    BTW insisting that their journalists in the Middle East learn at least 25 words in Arabic, might make them a bit less gullible.)

  • Mario

    I like the way Mr. Siskind analyze the cultural aspect and “ethnic” nature in the issue of diversity. His article provided some answers to what I have observed when I was in the USA where many Filipinos tend to congregate in medical profession and care giving. However, there has been a noticeable trend among Filipino professionals toward engineering and IT.

  • steven L

    The NYT has a problem with white Americans and Israeli Jews.

  • Another experience that Jews captured in the beginning of the Twentieth Century is the scrap metal business. My maternal grandfather emigrated to Western NY in 1907. He said that during his first year there he had 52 jobs, one a week, because of the fighting with antisemites in the city that he lived. Working for other people wasn’t going to work out for him; so, he bought a horse and cart and became a scrap dealer. Eventually, he became very prosperous.

    I had a friend in Ohio who hailed from Ironton, Ohio. I asked him how his family ended up there. He went on with a story about how they were told them that when they got off the boat to travel to Pittsburgh, PA – the Iron City. Forgetting that they were supposed to get off the train at Pittsburgh they continued to Ironton, OH. There they became scrap dealers. A profession that seems to be dominated by Jews.

  • art

    There are too many white males running the NYT they should resign and give their jobs,salaries and benefits to allow more diversity. The NYT should remember diversity begins at home

  • NCS

    Isn’t our government in our businesses enough? This is really a stretch to think people we vote into office would have a say so on what careers we choose no matter are ethnic origin. Invasive and insulting.

  • Ivan Gur-Arie

    The question is whether there is any objective proof that “minorities” are willfully kept out of Silicon Valley. If that be the case then there is a problem. If not, and it is a matter of choice of the applicant for a job and the skills he or she presents, then that is another question, Leftist knee jerk reactions to perceived slights is ridiculous. I think the left complains as a matter of course. It is a camse of You say tomato and I say tomaaato. Anything to be disagreeable and offensive.